The French Retreat runs workshops, courses and wellness retreats on a beautiful property in the Charente
It is always a pleasure to encounter fellow Francophiles, not least those who have successfully turned their passion for French living into a welcoming ‘home away from home’ for others. Two such people are the British couple Emma and Matthew Pruen, the owners of a beautiful old manor house surrounded by sunflower fields and vineyards in the countryside between Bordeaux and Cognac. The peaceful setting of The French Retreat, as they’ve named it, makes it an ideal venue for a relaxing and inspiring break, such as the relationship retreat I attended last summer. It’s a format Matthew and Emma, who between them have many years’ experience teaching self-development courses, run regularly. Having read about it online, I was intrigued and decided to book myself onto a three-day residential workshop.
The daily sessions took place in a light and airy converted barn, which was also where I slept in a rustic-chic ensuite bedroom overlooking the south Charente countryside. We were a group of just over a dozen people, couples and singles and mostly in our forties, and soon bonded over our respective reasons for attending the retreat. Thanks to the warm and supportive atmosphere created by Matthew and Emma, it felt natural and comfortable to talk about what defines a healthy relationship and share our personal stories. We were guided through exercises designed to help us explore our patterns and underlying needs, and – crucially – how to express them effectively to our partner, which resulted in aha-moments all round.
A passion project
Between sessions and in conversation with the Pruens I learnt how they had gone about creating their French haven and was both impressed and inspired by their story. They had the idea to set up a retreat centre in France after attending and teaching many retreats themselves through the years. “We knew the right venue was critical to the experience of the participants,” explains Emma, “because when we feel safe and secure, our bodies relax and healing can take place.”
Comfort was obviously critical, but also privacy from prying eyes, she adds. They didn’t want their neighbours peeking through the shutters while people were processing their childhood trauma. Being surrounded by nature was high on the list, as well as more practical nurture such as en-suite bathrooms and great food. Finding the right property took about six months of concerted searching; developing it took a couple of years of financially, physically and emotionally challenging hard work while navigating the labyrinthine French rules and regulations for building, setting up a business and residency. “We started the project without a budget, an architect or even a main contractor,” says Emma. Luckily, she is a powerhouse and they opened with a meditation workshop in July 2015, just two years after finalising the purchase.
The house was once a Cognac-making estate and had been vacant since the 1970s. “We laughed at what the previous owners would have made of the yoga, shamanic drumming, and therapy that now takes place here,” says Emma, “but we feel the house is happy to be filled with people again, as old photographs we found in the attic show that it once was.”
A sanctuary for the senses
It certainly seemed that way. I immediately felt at home and enjoyed some much-needed downtime soaking up the sun in the lavender-scented courtyard and relaxing by the pool reading a book borrowed from the little library in the barn. I could have ventured into the local market town of Chalais or taken a winery tour around the medieval village of Saint-Émilion, a 40-minute drive away, but I was too well catered for at the house to want to leave. There were massage and reiki treatments, and delicious home-cooked food – Matthew used to run award-winning restaurants in Bristol and his culinary passion is evident. The small chef team served up feasts of salads, gratins and quiches, meat and fish dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, and the cheese boards and decadent desserts alone are well worth a visit.
I have a feeling I’ll be back again soon, and would warmly recommend The French Retreat, whether you crave some stillness, want to reconnect with yourself or learn something new. Matthew and Emma run their own relationship courses at certain dates and the rest of the year the venue is available for other teachers to run other types of workshops and events. Throughout 2023, there will be yoga, Pilates, creative writing, music, Hoffman Process courses and the venue’s first menopause retreat.
Lead photo credit : The French Retreat in the Charente © The French Retreat
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